When the main purpose of your indoor aquatics facility is to host swimming and diving events, you cannot afford to have participants in these events complain about your facility’s air quality.
But that was the situation that Brad Boyle, natatorium manager at the Burt Flickinger Athletic Center, faced at Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY. The facility, which was built specifically to host the World University Games swimming competition in 1993, has a six-lane warm-up pool and an Olympic-sized pool that holds 1 million gallons of water. Both pools use chlorine as their primary method of disinfection.
“During our events, we would have multiple complaints regarding the air quality at our facility,” Boyle says. “It got to the point where we had multiple swimmers have to seek medical attention in the middle of a meet due to the severity of their reactions.”
Shocking the water and running the HVAC system more than normal at events did not help, Boyle says.
Several studies have linked indoor chlorine-based pools with an increase in incidents of asthma among children and adults who work in aquatics areas or are regular swimmers. The problem is not so much the chlorine itself but the mixing of chlorine with bodily fluids, such as sweat and urine, that then produce chloramines, which are released into the air.
Indoor, chlorine-based pools that have poor air circulation systems can experience air quality issues, says Doni Visani, senior principal at Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architectural firm in Denver.
“I think there is more of an awareness recently that there is quite a bit of reaction in a pool environment between water and the air,” Visani says.
A good circulation system that uses ducts close to the water level to move out the gaseous air and move in fresh air can help. Installing a good ductwork system is not expensive if you already have a good dehumidification system, Visani says. To fine tune that system so that an existing ductwork system is located closer to the water can increase the upfront mechanical costs by 5 percent to 10 percent, but a system like this helps save on operational costs because some of the load has been taken off the dehumidification system.
Even though proper ventilation can allow operators to maintain a chlorine-based disinfection system, some club operators are choosing to move to other systems of water disinfection.
That was the case for Boyle, who says that chloramines were not a concern 20 years ago when the pools at Flickinger were built using a chlorine system, which was the least expensive method of disinfection. In February 2011, he spent $150,000 to install a UV disinfection system on both pools.
“The main purpose of our facility is to run swimming and diving events” Boyle says. “Had we not made an immediate switch to UV, there was a fear that we would be losing events in the future. We also felt that the health and safety of the athlete was of the utmost importance and had to address the problem at the source, which was first the water and then the HVAC system.”
Upon making the switch to UV, Boyle saw a quick improvement to the air quality. However, some air quality issues remain during events, so this summer, the college is investing $6 million to replace the roof and the HVAC system.
Boyle’s sister, Brandi Perkovich, is aquatics director at Newtown Athletic Club, Newtown, PA. Her facility, which has two indoor pools, was in the process of switching from a chlorine disinfection system to a $30,000 salt water system when she was hired. A member survey prompted the switch after swimmers complained the chlorine caused itchy skin and a chlorine smell in the air, Perkovich says.
In Pennsylvania, water is required to be tested every week by a third party, then sent to the county health department for review, Perkovich says.
Even if the water passes the test, the real problem stems from gaseous air just above the water, and no states require that air to be tested, Visani says.
Rich Schoeneman, manager at Centre Club Libertyville (IL), has not had the air quality in his aquatics area tested, but his staff regularly tests the water quality in the 25-meter pool and the whirlpool to ensure they meet standards. Still, his staff watches the ventilation system closely, monitoring humidity, temperature and air flow.
Schoeneman is considering switching from chlorine to another system, partly because he has heard about the studies associating chloramines with asthma.
“It is a concern,” says Schoeneman, who adds that he has not had any complaints from members or staff about asthma issues.
Switching from chlorine to another disinfection system does not just positively affect the environment for swimmers, he says, but it also decreases the amount of chemicals that he must buy and that the staff must handle.
Perkovich says her facility spent around $2,400 to $3,600 per year on liquid chlorine, but with the salt water system, her expenses are about $1,200 per year for salt.
Boyle also has seen savings with his UV system. He still must use a small amount of chlorine in the water, per state requirements, but his chlorine costs are lower. The maintenance cost on the stainless steel and other metals in the pools has decreased, since the UV is less corrosive than chlorine, he says.
Switching to another disinfection system or beefing up a ventilation system in a chlorine-based pool also can cut down on the chlorine smell.
“If you walk into a pool area and you smell that chlorine smell, that’s a red flag,” Visani says. “That means something is going wrong with either the pool water or a poor mechanical system.”
The end result of installing a better ventilation system or switching to a nonchlorine disinfection system can lead to a happier member base and happier employees.
“Everyone is happier,” Boyle says about his facility’s switch to UV. “Staff are not afraid to work long hours during events, and the athletes are able to compete at the highest level. The word is spreading that our facility has moved in the right direction to fix the problems that have been plaguing it for a few years. Rentals are up, and even more organizations are looking to bring their events to Buffalo.”